KEEPING MUM Mary Poppins commits murder most foul in Keeping Mum, a slight but worthwhile comedy that proudly displays its droll British humor at every turn. Rowan Atkinson, toning down his Bean befuddlement just a tad, plays Walter Goodfellow, the vicar of a miniscule English burg as well as the head of a highly dysfunctional family. Walter has become so consumed with his church duties that he has emotionally and physically abandoned his wife Gloria (Kristen Scott Thomas), who in turns seeks comfort in the arms of an American horndog she employs as her golf instructor (leatherface Patrick Swayze, appropriately sleazy). Their children aren't faring much better: 17-year-old Holly (Tamsin Egerton) sleeps with a different guy every day as a form of rebellion, while younger brother Petey (Toby Parkes) emerges as the school bullies' favorite punching bag. But along comes housekeeper Grace (Maggie Smith) to set things right. Working behind the scenes, she improves everyone's lot in life -- never mind that this seemingly benign lady has to kill a few people in order to foster family unity. Working from a story by American author Richard Russo (Empire Falls), co-scripter and director Niall Johnson manages to wring some poignant moments out of this dicey material without ever betraying its dark comic roots. Still, the greatest amount of credit for the movie's surprising emotional heft goes to Scott Thomas, who creates a fully realized characterization of a woman whose natural need for human compassion and closeness forces her to take foolhardy risks. Scott Thomas currently lives in France, which may explain why she rarely appears in movies that secure stateside release (her last widely seen picture was 2001's Gosford Park); how might Hollywood producers better lure this marvelous actress to make films on this side of the Atlantic?
MAN OF THE YEAR It's junk like Man of the Year that makes me remember movie reviewing often isn't just a job; it's an adventure -- and I'm owed some serious combat pay. Merging the premises of Warren Beatty's caustic Bulworth, Kevin Kline's decent Dave and Chris Rock's flaccid Head of State, writer-director Barry Levinson imagines what would happen if an outspoken and compassionate comedian became president of the United States. Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-like TV talk show host who, after joking that he should run for office, finds himself on the ballot in 13 states. It's a decent premise for a piercing satire, but Levinson's approach is so timid that it makes last spring's soggy American Dreamz look as incendiary as a Michael Moore documentary by comparison. The main problem, of course, is Williams, who isn't playing a fictional character running for president as much as he's playing Robin Williams playing a fictional character running for president. In other words, it's the same lazy performance we almost always get, with the actor groveling for laughs via his patented physical shtick and repertoire of stale jokes that were already passé around the time Roman emperors began chucking Christian standup comics to the lions. Soon, the attempts at humor dry up completely to make room for a dismal plotline in which a techie (Laura Linney) at a company that produces Diebold-style voting machines realizes that a computer glitch led to Dobbs' ascendancy to the Oval Office. As she tries to reveal the truth, the company goons (led by a what-is-he-doing-here? Jeff Goldblum) decide to shut her up permanently. This film is so all around terrible that I'm almost tempted to replace my "Defend America: Impeach Bush" bumper sticker with one that reads, "Defend American Cinema: Impeach Man of the Year." I said almost.
ALL THE KING'S MEN Writer-director Steven Zaillian's adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is an unmitigated disaster, choked by miscast actors, suffocated by illogical editing and drowned by a choppy script that offers no real sense of period and no clear delineation of its central themes. Zaillian has stated in interviews that he deliberately avoided seeing the 1949 film version (an Oscar winner for Best Picture), preferring instead to take all material from the printed source; in retrospect, that was a faulty decision, since studying that movie would have enabled him to see how weighty material can be effectively thinned out and streamlined for the screen. The film's faults are many, but let's start with the grotesque miscasting of Sean Penn as self-proclaimed "hick" politician Willie Stark. Penn, who's about as folksy as a Manhattan Starbucks, turns in one of his worst performances, second only to his shameless "Look, Ma, I'm retarded!" showboating in I Am Sam. Still, he's hardly the only one who was hired for name recognition rather than because he was right for the role: Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins are similarly ill-used in this stultifying boondoggle.